nichiren daishonin, alain de botton & seneca
January 31, 2009 § 1 Comment
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
(a bust of Seneca is in the upper right-hand corner)
Oil on canvas
Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)
Nichiren on Sado
Woodcut on paper
Winter Always Turns to Spring
“Those who believe in the Lotus Sutra are as if in winter, but winter always turns to spring. Never from ancient times on has anyone heard or seen of winter turning back into autumn. Nor have we ever heard of a believer in the Lotus Sutra who turned into an ordinary person. The Sutra reads ‘If there are those who hear the law, then not one will fail to attain Buddhahood.’” Nichiren Daishonin (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1 pp. 535-36)
Since the Tatsunokochi persecution had failed, Nichiren Daishonin (1222-1282) had been exiled to Sado Island & his followers also suffered hardship & privation. Myoichi, herself a disciple of Nichiren, was widowed while Nichiren was on Sado. She & her recently deceased husband were persecuted for their adherence to Nichiren’s Buddhism. Myochi continued her support of Nichiren in spite of all she had suffered. Nichiren wrote this gosho after he received a robe she had sent him.
This gosho can be seen as a letter of sympathy, gratitude & consolation. Nichiren sympathizes with Myoichi’s position as a mother of two sick children who was recently widowed. He also speaks of an undying gratitude by promising to look after her children in life and in death. The misfortunes Myoichi endured are what Nichiren seems to be addressing with this metaphor on winter turning to spring, with the profound idea that Buddhist potential lies within everybody’s life.
The contemporary philosopher & author Alain de Botton (1967- ) wrote a book titled The Consolations of Philosophy, back in 2000. This book was also made into a PBS series. In each chapter de Botton “consoles” us by presenting a specific problem, such as frustration, difficulties, a broken heart &c. De Botton then couples each problem with a particular philosopher, showing how each philosopher would deal with each problem.
Conveniently enough, a chapter from de Botton’s book corresponds to the gosho we’re looking at today. In the chapter on frustration de Botton uses the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca (4 BC-65 AD) to help us better cope & understand the everyday (& lifelong) frustrations we all encounter. Although Seneca was famously known as Nero’s tutor, he didn’t share in Nero’s wild eccentricities, in fact Nero ordered Seneca to commit suicide.
The Stoics (including Seneca) wrote at length on the idea that a virtuous person was one who has a steadfastness & inner resistance to the sufferings of life, which is why we still refer to a stoic attitude as an attitude of forbearance to pain or even (in more extreme cases) an indifference to fleeting passions. Our concept of the 6th world of rapture might compare this Stoic notion of an indifference to fleeting passions. On Seneca de Botton writes “A single idea recurs throughout his work: that we best endure those frustrations which we have prepared ourselves for & understand & are hurt most by those we least expected and cannot fathom” (The Consolations of Philosophy, p.81). With this slightly confusing sentence de Botton is pointing to Seneca’s notion that there is pain we can accept because we have prepared for it & the pain of life that is unexpected sometimes hurts the most. Seneca’s advice is to prepare for the pain we expect the least. Basically we must come to an understanding that life can be unpredictable, be prepared, emotionally & realistically. Seneca writes: “Remember: mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth. Reckon on everything, expect everything.” (De Ira 11.10.7)
Nichiren prepares us too by quoting the great teacher Dengyo (767-822 AD): “The two phases of life and death are the wonderful workings of one mind. The two ways of existence and nonexistence are the true functions of an inherently enlightened mind.” Nichiren continues with “No phenomena—either in heaven or earth, yin or yang, the sun or the moon, the five planets, or any of the worlds from hell to Buddhahood—are free from the two phases of life and death. Life and death are simply the two functions of Myoho-renge-kyo.” (The Heritage of the Ultimate Law of Life, WND-1, 216)
Our “winter” is experienced when we cannot see that we’ll become enlightened, or that we cannot endure while in the midst of life’s sufferings. Our “spring” arrives when we are enlightened to our own Buddha potential & when we can also see it in the lives of others.
Toward the end of his life Seneca wrote his Epistulae Morales (Moral Epistles) in which de Botton found this extraordinary quote, extraordinary in that it anticipates Nichiren’s metaphor on winter, 100’s of years earlier.
Unseasonable weather upsets the health; and we must fall ill. In certain places we may meet with wild beasts, or with men who are more destructive than any beasts. Floods, or fires, will cause us loss. And we cannot change this order of things; but what we can do is to acquire stout hearts…That which you cannot reform, it is best to endure.” (Epistulae Morales, CVIII 1-9)
That we must be strong should go unquestioned. When we pursue with our lives conviction, faith & optimism, the obstacles that once seemed undoable can be faced with courage & strength. Value is not created without struggle. Struggle is not met without fear, but fear can be overcome by wisdom & it’s just this kind of wisdom that’s imparted when Daisaku Ikeda writes: “Faith in the Lotus Sutra means bravely making our way through the winters of adversity. By taking on the arduous task of changing our karma, we are able to greet the spring & build happiness & good fortune in our lives. Therefore we must not avoid the trials of winter. If we have the courage to face winter’s challenges, then we can advance boundlessly toward the wonderful springtime of attaining Buddhahood & achieving kosen-rufu.” (Living Buddhism, Jan-Feb 09, p. 63)